Tag Archives: bc gold rush

Bill Barlee: BC’s gold rush historian

One of British Columbia’s most enthusiastic historians, Neville “Bill” Barlee, has passed away.  Born in Grand Forks in 1932, Bill became interested in the history of BC and began a collection of gold rush artifacts. Samples of his extensive collection have been displayed at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. In addition to writing books on gold panning and frontier life, Bill published a magazine called Canada West.  There was a long-running tv program called “Gold Trails and Ghost Towns” from 1986 to 1996 hosted by Mike Roberts. Here is Bill Barlee talking about the gold rush at Rock Creek:

Poisonous Potato

The gold miner
prepares to bake
removing some
yellow flesh
and replacing it with a blob
greyish, putty
mixes with black sand
over the flame of the campfire
he cooks them
turning them over, then
opens them
like oysters
with pearls of gold
he walks away
leaving broken halves

“Dr. Fifer!”
Sara is sick
only eight years old
Dr. Fifer tries to guess
what is happening?
the little girl’s life slips
through his fingers
he is helpless without knowing
her mother knocks his glasses
off his nose and onto the floor
Ah Chung picks them up
before her feet can crush them

Going for a walk to clear his mind
he comes across a campfire of
smouldering ashes and potatoes
and sees little teeth marks
he smells the potato with his eyes shut
then he opens them again and sees
Robert Wall, one of his patients
cooking mercury in the potatoes
he explains
wire that holds them together

Fifer throws down the potato in disgust
and turns his back to Wall
in two years Fifer will be dead
not from mercury
from an explosion of lead in his chest
from Wall himself

When the Fraser River gold rush began in the spring of 1858, Governor James Douglas sent Hudson’s Bay Company employee Ovid Allard to reopen Fort Yale, which had been abandoned on the completion of Fort Hope nearly ten years before. Allard remained at Yale until 1864. Sara was his youngest daughter.

Dr. William Fifer came to Yale during the height of the gold rush from California with his assistant, Ah Chung. He served as the town’s doctor as well as president of the Town’s council. He was killed by Robert Wall, a gold miner, July 5, 1861.

Mercury (or quicksilver) is a heavy, liquid metal, silvery-white in colour, with a very low melting point. It was commonly used to recover gold in the 1860s.

A note on the artist: Sarah Crease painted a series of watercolours depicting the Hudson’s Bay Company fort and the town of Victoria. In 1862 she sketched landscapes of New Westminster, Hope, Yale, and the Fraser River.

Rock Creek War (part 2)

Peter O'Reilly, Gold Commissioner (BC Archives)

The dead man’s name was Frank Porter, an American from Oregon.  Gold commissioner, Peter O’Reilly was responsible for arresting those who broke the British Law.  How was he going to find the murderer amongst all these people?  They could hardly be described as cooperative.

He had just dragged the unfortunate miner off the trail and covered him with a cloth weighted down with some rocks, when he heard someone call his name.

“Are you Peter O’Reilly, the new gold commissioner?” the man called out.

“Yes? And who are you?” O’Reilly asked as he advanced a few steps.

“Jackson from the Portland Advertiser,” he said, shaking his hand. Could I ask you your opinion on the gold diggings?”

“Yes, it appears that things are going quite well for most of the miners. I hear some of them are making upwards of five dollars a day. What have miners been telling you?”

“Only five?” Jackson laughed. “Most of them must be making at least twenty. You should’ve met with George Dunbar, he packed off six thousand dollars in gold dust to Fort Hope just yesterday.”

“Six thousand dollars?!” O’Reilly shook his head.  “One would think that the miners would have more than enough to pay their mining licence.”

“Are you planning on setting up a customs office here?”

“Not yet. In the future perhaps, but for now I must approach the miners individually.”

“That sounds like a daunting task. Have you considered putting up a notice?”

After the reporter went on his way, and O’Reilly had recorded the death of Frank Porter.  If Jackson had been from the Victoria Gazette or the British Columbian, he would’ve considered telling him about the death of Frank Porter. But he was sensitive to the fact how senseless crimes could escalate into international incidents.

He mulled over the idea of a notice over breakfast, then inquired with a couple of the merchants if they had anything on which he could write a message. Removing a piece of paper from his government issued blotter was unthinkable.

In the end, he found a piece of smooth bark and wrote out a notice requesting payment from miners.  After tacking it to a tree, O’Reilly mounted his horse and rode to Black Rock Bar where he had collected the fee from Porter.  He slowed down when he encountered a train of twenty mules loaded with supplies.

One of the riders tipped his hat as an expression of thanks.

“From Fort Colville?” O’Reilly asked as he glanced over the lumbering mules, their necks straining forward under the weight of the crates and bags.

“The Dalles. Twenty days out on the trail, we’ve been.”

“Bringing supplies?”

“Flour, whisky, sugar and beans mostly. I hear the miners are willing to pay good prices at any rate.  Just passed a group of miners heading south with bags of gold dust.  Word about the diggings is getting around.”

O’Reilly thought about that as he headed further along the river. There wasn’t much point in telling him at this point, he’d have to pay a fee for bringing in the liquor.

At one of the gulches, he saw a few miners, some with pans and some with rockers.

“Hullo! Could you show me your mining licences?”

One of them reached into his coat and pulled out a piece of paper.  “I paid on the Fraser,” he said as he handed it over.

“It has expired. You have to pay another five dollars.”

O’Reilly asked the other two but they refused to answer him.  Feeling agitated, he carried on, asking miners for their licences and getting nowhere.

Finally reaching Black Rock Bar, he got off his horse and began approaching each miner as they continued to work.  There were about twenty of them spread out along the bar.  He asked each one about Frank Porter while at the same time demanding to see mining licences.

There were one or two people who remembered Porter and while he was speaking to each of them, he made abbreviated notes in his own shorthand.

As it turned out Porter had been having an argument over a claim he had held jointly with a man named David Barr. Barr had threatened to shoot Porter.

“He was yelling around, saying Porter took his gold dust.”

“Do you know where Mr. Barr can be found?”

The man scratched his arm as if giving it some thought. “Probably went to Fort Hope with Dunbar’s express.”

O’Reilly knew it took about four or five days for George Dunbar’s Pony Express to make the trip. If he had left yesterday there wouldn’t be much point in trying to catch up to it. Besides, he had to lay down the law.

Just to be certain, he spoke with many more gold seekers and each of them confirmed what he had suspected. Barr was long gone on the trail to Fort Hope.

As he went further down the creek to some of the other bars, O’Reilly got the uncomfortable feeling that comes with unfriendly territory.

He was becoming used to the insults and the sullen stares that went with the miners but there was one incident that tipped him over the edge.

At Texas Bar several men blocked the trail down to the river’s edge. O’Reilly kept back a few paces and kept the reins firmly in one hand.

“Only miners are allowed past this point,” yelled one of the men.  “You’re not coming around here and demanding our money.”

Several jeers went up in the gathering crowd.

O’Reilly paused for a moment.  He could have turned around but didn’t. He stood straight in his saddle.

“I’m not going to leave this bar until each of you pays his due,” O’Reilly shouted.  “As gold commissioner for Rock Creek, I have the authority to halt your recovery.”

“You’re going to turn around and get off our bar!” shouted the man.  “And here’s your payment!”

With that remark he hurled a rock at O’Reilly just missing his hat.  Shielding his face, he felt an onslaught of rocks as he turned the horse around. It didn’t need any encouragement to break into a gallop towards the open field.  It was all he could do to hold on with both hands around its neck.

At this rate, he would catch up to David Barr in about three days.


Peter O’Reilly came to British Columbia in 1858 from Ireland where he served with the Royal Irish Constabulary. He later went on to serve as a magistrate, judge and Indian Reserve Commissioner. O’Reilly and his family lived at Point Ellice House, now a heritage site in Victoria.

The New Eldorado

by Kinahan Cornwallis – 1858

To the clime of Columbia, Britain’s new born,
Where the rays of the sun gladly usher the morn,
And the landscape deck out with a smile;
Where the hearts of the countless beat hopefully high,
And gold doth the moments beguile;
Where the frown of the mountains, the blue of the sky,
Contrast in their beauty with forest and plain;
Where the green perfumed prairie rolls in the breeze.
And mankind ever struggle for gain;
Where the sight of the ore even fails to appease
Man’s inordinate yearning for gold, –
Still making each eagerly struggle the more
For the treasure ungather’d – untold.
To that clime go, ye people, ye sons of the west,
‘Tis a land of exuberant plenty and joy;
Go, ye children of cities, by fortune opprest,
Where gold may be gathered which knows no alloy;
Far and wide doth it lie on that beautiful shore;
May it gladden and laurel the pathway of time
Left the wanderer to traverse who reaps from its mine.
‘Tis the bauble of earth; – ’tis the gift of the chute,
Of millions the spoil, – It is mine – It is thine.


Kinahan Cornwallis (1839 – 1917) was a British author and poet. This poem appears in his book, “The New Eldorado; or British Columbia.”  The first line in the poem “Columbia, Britain’s new born” refers to British Columbia having just been named a British colony in 1858. Previously it was territory controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company.


Rock Creek War (part 1)

Peter O’Reilly, Revenue Officer and Gold Commissioner arrived on horseback at the river they called “Rock Creek” along the southern border of British Columbia, colony of Britain. He had been sent on the premise to collect the $5 mining licences the Governor had imposed and record the claims.

The first day, he set up his tent and approached a cluster of men squatting by the river, shaking their gold pans.

“You are on British territory and everyone here is required to pay a fee of $5.”

Some miners regarded him with surly stares while others balked at his request for money.

“Who says we’re on British soil? I don’t see anything around here to tell me,” one of the miners said. “You’re a spy!”

“You’re above the 49th parallel and no I am not a spy, I’m a Revenue Officer.”

“This here bar was discovered by American soldiers and they claimed it in the name of the United States!”

A loud cheer went up and several fired pistols into the air, causing his horse to jostle him.

A few short miles down the winding river, he came upon another group of miners who reluctantly paid their due.

“Why must we pay $5 when we don’t have the same privileges as those other miners who claim that since they are American, they have first priority?”

“Every miner that pays the fee is entitled to work a claim wherever he so wishes.  You are on British soil and no one miner is distinguished from another,” O’Reilly said.

The man extended his hand and O’Reilly shook it.

In the course of the day, O’Reilly tallied almost five hundred men, hunkered down over their gold pans and rockers, ignoring his request for payment.

He stopped at each of the four trading posts and noted the following:

Beef – 15 cents per lb.
Flour – $25 per container
Beans – 30 cents per lb
Sugar – 50 cents per lb
Milk was cheap and plentiful.

Judging by the prices and the sales, O’Reilly concluded that these were indeed profitable diggings.  None of them admitted to selling liquor.  Curiously, not one of them sold mining tools either.

“Fort Colville,” one of them said when he asked where the supplies originated.

Later that evening, O’Reilly returned to his camp only to discover that someone had been riffling through his belongings.  Unnerved, O’Reilly settled on a rock nearby and started making notes.

He drew a brief sketch of the river and made marks where he noticed the various camps set up.  Out of all the people he had spoken to, he only had $30. It certainly wasn’t enough to  convince his superiors that he was doing his job.

Two bars in particular, “Soldiers’ bar” and “Denver bar” were yielding a lot of gold.  Even from a distance, O’Reilly observed the miners gathering the lemon coloured lightn1ngs.  He watched them carry their load back south.

Part of the problem lay with the territory itself. Rock Creek hovered just a few miles above the boundary with the United States. There was no impediment to someone scampering over the invisible line to Fort Colville some seventy miles away.  It was just undulating hills and grassy prairie watched over by horses and cattle.

O’Reilly was starting to eat some dinner when he heard raucus shouting and yelling. As night fell, the boisterous activity continued. It was evident that alcohol was fuelling the miners’ conversation and he heard gunshots in the distance.  O’Reilly slept in fits and starts with his pistol at his side.

When he awoke in the morning, he noted with some relief that it was very quiet. Perhaps everyone was still asleep or had already snuck off to the river to try their luck again.  As he cautiously poked his head out of the tent, he saw a body.  As he walked towards it he came to the realization that it was the man with whom he had shook hands with the previous day.

The Rock Creek War had begun.

(to be continued)

Fraser River Salmon and the Gold Rush

How did the annual salmon migration affect the “Canyon War” in the summer of 1858?

I have posted a new page called “Salmon and the Gold Rush” that deals with why salmon was so critical to the Hudson’s Bay Company and First Nations alike.

Also, I have included interesting and little known facts about the process that was used to cure and store the salmon.




Molasses in the Gold Rush

Fort Langley - 1858

William Henry Bevis was the Revenue Officer at Fort Langley.  He was in charge of collecting fees for liquor, timber cutting and mining licences.

“I don’t see why I should be paying you money!” the man shouted.

William Bevis stood his ground. “I am the Revenue Officer here at Fort Langley and you will have to pay a fee for the timber you have cut.  These are the rules.”

“But whose rules are they?” the man challenged. “I don’t see a flag hanging above this shack.”

As the gold seeker stomped away, Bevis had to agree.  Other than his title, he had nothing to identify him as working for any government. There was no flag.  The shack the man referred to consisted of one room where he was to handle business, sleep and eat.  His wife Mattilda  didn’t complain much but the cramped quarters and lack of household amenities were taking its toll and her enigmatic smile had been replaced with a perpetual frown. Of course he did write to James Douglas in Fort Victoria, and his replies were not definitive.

There was a growing occupation of tents and lean-to shacks much like his own about a quarter-mile down river from Fort Langley.  Bevis had an idea that liquor and supplies were being sold, contravening all fees that were posted.

Most of the supplies were coming in from the Semiahmoo Trail up from Washington State.  While the Satellite and the Recovery patrolled the Fraser River, watching for contraband liquor and supplies, it was up to Bevis to watch the people coming up from the Semiahmoo Trail.

In addition to tracking people down and kindly asking if they would pay the custom tariffs, Bevis was also given the addition of Postmaster.

“Perhaps this would be a good way to intercept some of the smugglers,” Mattilda said.

Bevis raised one eyebrow. “Do you honestly think someone would be so daft to write to say that they were coming with a large shipment?”

“Why not?  It’s not like you can do much to stop them!”

Bevis gritted his teeth, “I suppose not. But I certainly am not going to waste time nosing about people’s letters either!”

“I will then.”

“You? Do you plan on reading through the mail?”

She sat up straighter and shook her head, “not every single letter of course, but just the ones I think are suspicious.”

Bevis considered it for a minute before he realized that his wife was smiling.  He agreed; he got paid out of the revenue collected and he received a commission based on the value of the goods seized and the licences issued.

As weeks past, nothing seemed to improve.  “The present state of Langley is getting worse. There are muggings, constant firing of guns and pistols, gambling and theft of boats,” Bevis wrote to Douglas.

There was a campsite about fifteen miles south of Fort Langley where most of the smugglers took their break.  When Bevis spotted them on horseback, they claimed that they were with the Boundary Commission and that they had every right to be on the Semiahmoo Trail.

“What are those boxes?” he asked, pointing to the wooden crates strapped to either side of the mule.

“Those are molasses,” said the man.



“Where are your custom papers?”

To Bevis’ surprise, the man pulled out a piece of paper from his jacket while at the same time showing the grip of a large gun he was carrying.

Sure enough, the much handled paper contained the signature of A. C. Anderson, the chief customs officer in Victoria.

Disappointed, Bevis let him pass.  He doubted the boxes contained molasses but being outnumbered and outgunned, he had no choice.

While he was manning the Semiahmoo Trail, Mattilda kept a watch outside their little hut and observed the new arrivals and the ones that had set up shop.

“I saw that box of so-called molasses,” she said one day after Bevis arrived back from a five-hour canoe trip.

He was in no mood to pursue the matter, but she insisted he do something and he had to agree.  After a meager meal of hard bread and watery tea, Bevis ventured out to the tent she indicated and discovered the box of molasses already pried open. He reached in and lifted a bottle of liquor.

“You’re wanting to make a deal, Mr. Bevis?”

Bevis turned around and found himself facing down the barrel of a gun. He looked at Baxter, the well-known liquor seller, who was smirking.

“I don’t make deals. I collect payments. If you don’t wish to pay, then I will have to confiscate your box of liquor.”

After several more minutes of talking, Bevis left empty-handed and with a headache.  He could have used some liquor to calm his own nerves.

The following day brought good news:  assistant Revenue Officer Charles Wylde arrived.

At first Bevis was enthralled by this well-connected man. He seemed genuinely concerned about the present state and was full of ideas as how to bring order to the situation.

Bevis showed Wylde his letters to Douglas regarding the need for patrols on the Semiahmoo Trail.

“I report directly to the Colonial Secretary,” Wylde told him. “I can make a difference.”

Following the meeting, Bevis noticed that Mattilda was frowning once again.  She said that she was concerned about him.  “He seems too full of ambition.  How much is he going to earn from the revenue? What will be your commission?”

Bevis didn’t have the answer to her questions and he didn’t think anything of them at first. He was just glad to have someone else to share the responsibilities of collecting revenue.

A few days after his arrival and Bevis began to hear rumours of Wylde already penning long rambling letters to Douglas’ office claiming he single-handedly stopped canoes full of liquor, sometimes wading out into water under the threat of gunfire.

Bevis occasionally asked Wylde how things were doing and Wylde insisted everything was fine. It wasn’t until one of the other Fort employees complained that Bevis realized he had a problem on his hands.

As was his habit, he brought the mail back to his outpost and let Mattilda go through it.  Surprisingly enough, there was a large amount of mail this time so it was taking longer to go through it all. She was sitting at their table  with the mail piled on top, when there was a knock on the door.

“Well, what was I supposed to do?” She told Bevis later.

“Wylde demanded to know what I was doing with the mail. I told him I was helping you with your postmaster duties.  He told me that I was breaking the law and I told him that on the contrary, I was being helpful and at least I wasn’t concocting stories!”

Bevis bent down and started retrieving some notes, most of which were tied with string or twine.  Some of them had been sealed.

“What do you suppose this is?”

Bevis looked at the paper and something trilled in his brain.  “It does look unusual. Why on earth –”

His own thoughts jumbled over each other in excitement.  “These are original customs papers being brought down from Fort Yale ready to be used again.  Clever!  Now I know why we can’t collect any revenue! ”

Bevis looked at the destination.  It read simply Baxter at Fort Langley.


The American Boundary Commission, headed by Archibald Campbell as chief Commissioner, set up a camp on the Canadian side of Semiahmoo Bay in 1857.  This camp was there from 1857 to 1859.  The British conducted their own boundary survey.  To learn more about Camp Semiahmoo and the American Boundary Commission, see http://www.surreyhistory.ca/campsemi.html

Justice Arrives in Lillooet (part 2)

Owens brushed aside the snow enough so that he could see the body of Marcel LaPrairie. Barnard took in the view of the river and the small lean-to structure. Barnard filled him in with the details of how LaPrairie was discovered.

“LaPrairie was last seen at Gott’s Saloon, from what I’ve heard. He used to have a claim at the bar somewhere around here, but he sold it before the snow set in.”

Owens stood up, “He’s too frozen to get a good look at him but he was definitely shot. I think we should talk to Ah Ming, the fellow who discovered him, but first let’s stop at Gott’s saloon.”

There was a lively discussion going on as they entered and then the sound of voices ebbed away until the only sound was the bartenders towel squeaking against a shot glass. They were a rough brunch; dishevelled and with a complexion that suggested too many days subsisting on pork and beans mixed with alcohol. One man who had been picking his teeth with a bowie knife stopped and put it away.

Barnard and Owens ate the “special” which was an overpriced plate of potatoes and pork.

After the meal, they went through to the back of the establishment and found Ah Ming standing over a large cast-iron pot, stirring.

The door was closed but Barnard could hear some chickens in the coop outside.

“Marcel was Memaloost when I came and found him.”

Memaloost?” Owens repeated.

“That’s Chinook for dead,” Barnard said.

“Why were you looking for him?”

Ah Ming looked around as if wondering what else to add to the pot.

“He left some jade here he found. Told me where I could find some by the river. Too cold to look for gold so I look for jade.”

“Do you have this jade here?”

“I have it outside.”

They followed him to a small shed out the back and waited while he retrieved a chunk of dark green jade.

Afterwards, Owens suggested they split duties. He sent Barnard to talk to some of the gold miners at Gott’s Saloon while he went and inspected LaPrairie’s cabin.

Having inspected the outside, Owens couldn’t find anything unusual. Inside the cabin, was a pair of patched up moccasins,  blunt edged pick axe, and a piece of paper with the mark of the Hudson’s Bay Company. It was a receipt for the purchase of tobacco.

After further inquiries, Owens discovered that LaPrairie was working a new claim at Bridge River with three other French-speaking men. One was described as a ‘gens du pays’ and the other two were old voyageurs like LaPrairie.

Despite the cold and lack of gold mining activity, there was no accommodation to be had – every one of the thirteen saloons that had rooms were full as were the shacks that dotted the main street.

“Most of these men just had one or two months of gold panning,” Barnard said. “The ones that can’t afford to pay for shelter have built snow caves for themselves.”

Over a bowl of beans and dry bread, they discussed what might have happened to LaPrairie.

Owens pulled out the receipt he had put in his pocket for safekeeping and showed it to Barnard.

“‘100 lbs’ – that’s a lot of tobacco; more than someone would need for the winter.”

“How much tobacco is for sale in this town?” Owen asked. “I noticed that the General Store has taken their sign down but I still see people smoking.”

“You’ve got a point there. At $9 a pound, tobacco is probably more lucrative than gold, especially during the winter months when people are loitering about.”

Around six thirty, when it was dark out, Owens put on his snowshoes and told Barnard he was going to stay at LaPrairie’s cabin.

“Someone should be watching that place,” Owens said.

The stars were already visible and he could clearly see Orion the hunter as he trudged on snowshoes towards LaPrairie’s cabin.

Anyone else would have been tempted to light a fire inside but Owens knew that there were other eyes on LaPrairies’ cabin.

Bundled tightly, Owens pulled up a chair facing the door and waited. Sooner or later someone was going to show up.

The next day, Owens decided to set out and see LaPrairie’s claim for himself, but Barnard suggested otherwise.

“There’s no one there, the others have left. They’ve either gone south to Victoria or to Fort Hope to get more supplies.”

It seemed as though everyone knew LaPrairie. ‘Marcel’ was known for his outdoor skills, but no one had heard LaPrairie talking about gold somewhere. Everyone who Owens talked to was reluctant to answer his questions about how LaPrairie managed to afford his own cabin. It was only until he went inside the General Store that Owens got his answer.

“Most of the miners probably bring up their own tobacco,” said the clerk. “Our last shipment from the Hudson’s Bay Company never arrived.”

Owens had a plan that would shed some light on the mystery. He told the shopkeeper that he had found the missing shipment.

That same evening,something stirred outside of LaPrairie’s cabin. Owens crept behind the door just as it was pushed open.

A flickering kerosene lamp washed the inside walls in yellow.

The fellow was too preoccupied to notice Owens.  He rested the lamp on the floor as he felt along one of the boards with his foot. Then he bent down and using the edge of a bowie knife, he pried up one board and then another.

Within a minute the man had managed to pull out several packages from under the floor. Just as he was piling them on, Owens jumped him from behind and kicked the knife out of the way.

The bartender from the Gott’s Saloon struggled against him.

“I bought the tobacco from Marcel!”

“That tobacco was stolen. It was the property of the Hudson’s Bay Company. It was supposed to have been shipped to the General Store and instead it wound up here. You have a lot of explaining to do Mr. Gott!”

Owens secured handcuffs on him and then led him outside.

Justice Arrives in Lillooet (part 1)

Chartres Brew – Chief Inspector of Police

January 27, 1860 – Fort Yale, BC

The Chief Inspector of Police, Chartres Brew, had just finished writing a letter to Governor Douglas about the need for at least one hundred and fifty men for British Columbia’s new police force, when there was a knock on the door. The first murder of the year had already happened.

Brew opened the door and Constable Frances Barnard removed his hat as he stepped inside.

“There’s been a murder at Lillooet, sir,” Barnard said.

Brew listened to the story of events while Barnard kept standing. There was only one chair in the cabin and Brew was sitting on it.

Marcel LaPrairie’s body was discovered by Ah Ming, a Chinese gold miner, a few miles up the Fraser River from the town of Cayoosh.

“Who was Marcel LaPrairie?”

“A voyageur. He used to be at Fort Athabasca but he left about six months ago. The Hudson Bay Company had a record of him I’m sure.”

Brew stroked his chin. “That may not be necessary. What is your background, Barnard?”

Frances J Barnard

“I recently came from Quebec.”

“But you’re an anglophone, aren’t you? Your middle name is Jones.”

“By birth, I am. But I also have learned French and Chinook.”

“Did you come to Fort Yale to become a constable or a gold miner?” Brew smiled.

Barnard looked at Brew squarely in the eyes. His own were puffy from a cold and lack of sleep.

“I came to Fort Yale with every intention of earning money for my family who I brought with me. I only had $5 after travelling here, not enough to pay for a mining licence right away.”

“Did you pay?”

“Of course, I paid. I paid all my creditors and as I promised my family, I would leave Fort Yale once I made a profit. Perhaps you want to know why I wanted to join your Constabulary? Well, I can tell you that I want to live in a peaceful community like everyone else and contribute in any way I can, including finding out who killed this voyageur.”

There was a silence between them for a minute and then Brew spoke.

“It has been my bias that most men who have the express interest of seeking gold are not likely to stay for long. However, on the other hand, your experience in these matters is essential in solving crimes such as these and for that we are grateful.”

“I am assigning Constable Cecil Owens to this case. He is formerly of the Royal Irish Constabulary and he has a lot of experience in these matters.”

Barnard put his hat on and made for the door. “I’ll see him at Lillooet, then.”

Brew stood up. “Perhaps it would be best for him to ride with you. He’s only been here for less than three weeks. It wouldn’t be fair to him to ride in this country on his own. There is an extra room I can find for you while he can get a horse ready.”

The ‘extra room’ it turned out was a bunk that was used by the gaoler.

Cecil Owens, it turned out, was a matter of fact man whose first question was to ask Barnard if he was armed.

“I have a knife, but I’ve never owned a gun, nor have I fired one.”

Owens brought out two pistols and gave one to Barnard. “I’ll show you how to fire it and then we’ll be on our way.”

It took them two days to ride from Fort Yale to Lillooet and Owens asked Barnard many questions along the way, most of which he didn’t mind answering except about his mining claim.

The first night in the bush, Owens seemed quite agitated as he went over the guns once again with Barnard. At first Barnard just assumed he must be cold, but then he realized Owens couldn’t bring himself to close his eyes for fear of the unknown.

“You don’t need to worry about using guns. I made it down by myself alright without any. The bears are in hibernation and everybody knows by now that you’re coming up to investigate Marcel’s murder.”

Owens was quiet for a bit, then just as Barnard was about ready to fall asleep, Owens asked, “did you know him?”

“Everyone knew Marcel from miles around.”

One evening as they were sitting around a campfire, eating some beans from a pot, the topic of mining claims came up.

“I’ve heard of some people salting their claims,” Owens remarked.

“You can always tell those ones.”

“How so?”

Barnard finished chewing before he replied. “There was a story once about a fellow they called ‘Popcorn Bill,’ and he said he had a claim along the Similkameen and how he lost his gold cache there. At first no one believed him, but he was really sincere about it and after a few mugs at the saloon, most were ready to believe anything. By the end of the evening, he had lots of offers to buy the claim. No one could ever find it of course.”

The next day, they arrived in Lillooet and Barnard showed the scene of the crime.

Lillooet, BC

(to be continued)

Building the BC Gold Rush Trail

Stuart Jones dreamt about hoisting sacks full of gold dust onto horseback even while he was cleaning out the stalls in Betwsycoed, a village in northern Wales. He imagined panning for gold on the Fraser River in British Columbia, finding lightn1ngs as large as his fist.

Occasionally, the horses would nudge his hand or his mother would call his name and for a brief moment he was stirred out of his reverie. At first she wouldn’t hear of him leaving the farm, but after hearing him talk about this new land for hours on end, she relented and Jones departed with seven other young men from his village, every one of them eager to join the gold rush in the Fraser River.

The seven stuck together because of camaraderie but also none of them spoke English except for a few words and most had never heard it spoken in conversation by people with as many accents such as when they boarded the ship at Southampton, England.

The ship was crammed full of people who talked about all the gold that had been found. Some read aloud from a newspaper that reported someone had made $830 from eight days worth of gold dust. Jones talked to everybody he encountered, practicing his English at every opportunity.

When they arrived in Fort Victoria, after months at sea. There was news that the Hudson Bay Company, which controlled the right of way on many of the trails, was offering food and horses to those who were willing to help build a trail that was promised to be a faster route to the gold diggings.

Jones and a few other Welshmen gathered around and talked about it. The Fraser River was impassable at this time of the year and they would have to wait anyway before embarking up the Fraser in canoes. Once they left Fort Victoria they would be charged a mining licence was five dollars a month. On the other hand, if they signed up to carve out a trail in the wilderness, they could pay twenty-five dollars, get the equivalent amount in supplies, plus free transport to the gold diggings. Jones and three of his friends from Betwsycoed volunteered to go.

S. S. Umatilla at Esquimalt (BC Archives)

From Victoria, they travelled by a steamboat called the Umatilla across the Strait to the mainland. The ship that they had sailed on for months was luxurious compared to the Umatilla. The boat didn’t contain any cabins or mattresses and even blankets were lacking. Some people slept on top of a table in the saloon; everything was covered in coal dust that had drifted in from the deck or off clothes and boots, although most of the prospectors didn’t seem to mind. Jones stepped around others and found a spot on the floor that wasn’t occupied.

The next day, Jones stood out on the deck and was admiring the snow-covered peaks overlooking the Fraser valley when the wind changed as the steamer puffed out plumes of black smoke from its coal-fired engine. Without warning, sparks from the smokestack fell down and one of them burnt a small hole in Jones hat.
Jones saw a map pinned to the wall and on it someone had written “Lofty Mountains” in several places.

When they disembarked the Umatilla at the mouth of Harrison Lake, there were canoes at the ready. Jones had never been in a canoe but these were as wide as some of the rowboats he had been in and many times as long. In a short time, they were paddled out in canoes to Port Douglas at the northern end of Harrison Lake. They were hemmed in by lofty peaks, each of their tops covered by thick snow. In the valley it was hot and there wasn’t a breeze to cool down.

Jones was surprised at the number of people who were there already from every kind of nationality he could think of – there were French, Germans, Danes, Chinese, Africans and Mexicans, Americans and British folks, all standing around waiting in the warm August sun.

A representative from the government gave a speech about the expectations. He identified himself as the commissary.

“You’ll be working in groups of twenty-five. Each group will select a captain who will then report to the Commander,” he said, turning to a man standing beside him who gave a curt nod.

“He in turn will report to me about weekly food rations and I will see that those needs are met.”

There were some murmurs of discontent and Jones looked around at the doubtful faces on some of them. Apparently, the word ‘rations’ was not appealing.
“What about the pack horses and mules?” One of the gold seekers yelled out from the crowd.

“We have about ten pack horses here, and more will be arriving shortly. In the meantime, if you want to be at the upper gold diggings by the fall, then I urge you to commence immediately. It should only take you six weeks at the most.”

In the beginning there was some squabbling about who would be included in the group, but the Commander was a former military man and no nonsense type who had the final say and everybody ceased to argue for a while after that. Jones was separated from his other Welsh friends at this point and for a while he was disheartened.

On the first day, Jones was assigned to a team and their Captain was Hughes. Hughes was given one unnamed packhorse which Jones called Lofty. Some teams were assigned the task of clearing the brush while others were given the duty of hauling aside the trees.

“It has to be wide enough for a cart!” one of the Captains shouted.

For many of the men, including Jones, it had been their first time in months doing hard labour and they were tired before supper. The air was close and thick with the heat and none of them bothered with blankets as they slept on the open ground.

The next morning Jones legs were stiff and sore. Others felt the same as him and some wondered if they had fallen ill, but as it turned out it was just their ‘sea legs’ that were giving them trouble.

Lofty wasn’t getting enough grub to eat despite all the hard work he was doing and Jones felt obliged to tell the Captain. Jones could see that Lofty was a riding horse not a pack horse.

One of the men in the group was a Chinese fellow named Ah Ming who agreed with him.

“Far easier to carry supplies like this,” he said as he hoisted a pole to his shoulders with buckets of supplies on either end. Ming knew many words in Chinook and Jones occasionally asked him the meaning of this word or that.

Over the course of the next few days, the teams switched places and Jones’ group was at the front, sweating with parched throats. It didn’t matter what language they were used to speaking because they only managed grunts anyway and more often than not, for some of them they could make a point with their fist much more quickly and emphatically. Captain Hughes disciplined members of the group on occasion and some of them simply headed back.

By the end of the first week, their group was down to twenty men and Lofty. The team in advance had ‘discovered’ a small hot springs and Jones felt refreshed and clean. He found a cool stream nearby and washed down Lofty while the others rested. The horse nuzzled his ear gently.

The terrain became soft and by day’s end they were covered in spatters of mud and all their attention was focussed on slapping mosquitoes.

“We’re almost at the Tenas Lake!” Hughes announced.

It was a relief to hear the news that they were making progress up the trail. Day after day, Jones had kept his eyes on the task at hand – clearing brush that the others were chopping down.

Everyone gathered at the edge of the lake. “We’re going to get canoes around and take the supplies first,” said Captain Hughes. “I want to talk to you, Jones.”

Jones waited at the shore with the horse and after Hughes had everyone organized and lined up for their turn in the canoe, he took Jones aside.

“We’re running short on food so I want you to go back to Port Douglas and get some more. How long do you think it would take?”

“Not more than a couple of days at the most,” Jones said.

Hughes patted him on the back and Jones left with nothing more than the handful of grub he had on him. At first he thought he could ride quickly, but the trail had been roughly cleared; there were still lots of branches and tree roots strewn about that made the trip half hazard.

A few hours later, it started to rain and although the trees formed a canopy overhead, water was making its way onto the newly cut trail. Evening was fast approaching and dusk was settling in when Jones saw a dark, furtive shape.

Startled, Lofty drew back and Jones had to coax him forward. In spite of his uneasiness, Jones kept up a relentless banter in Welsh, more to calm himself. Jones couldn’t help but feel that he was being watched. Straining his neck to look around, he didn’t see any movement except the bending of leaves as the rain spattered. Still, the feeling that there was something or someone following him in the shadows didn’t go away and he was beginning to wonder if he was just seeing things.

It was getting late, so Jones found a dry spot and tied up the horse and settled down for the night. Jones heard the sound of twigs snapping and when he opened his eyes he found himself looking at a large creature approaching. It was covered in fur and it stood on its legs like a human. Except it wasn’t a human. The creature stood still for a moment then turned and disappeared.

The image of the animal was still vivid in his mind when he reached Port Douglas and discovered much to his surprise that there were many men who had just arrived off the boat. He told them about about the strange creature that he had seen earlier up the trail and they told him it was probably a black bear. Jones wasn’t convinced.

“The team is running out of supplies,” Jones said. He told them Captain Hughes had sent him down to get supplies and food.

“You’re going to need at least three hundred pounds, where are you going to get that around here?”

Jones walked around the camp until he found the Commander, sitting at a row of hewn logs that doubled as a table, having something to drink. After Jones explained the situation, the Commander furrowed his brows as if he had trouble understanding him.

“There is a strict protocol that must be adhered to, I can’t just hand out supplies on any person’s request, it must come from the Captain himself.”

“But sir, the men are working on the trail and are going hungry! They’re working on the trail to Cayoosh!”

“No exceptions!”

Jones got up and was walking away when a dour-faced man approached him. He worked for the Hudson Bay Company, he said.

“I overheard you saw a creature earlier, would you mind telling me about it?”

Jones was about to launch into his story, when he stopped himself. “Do you think you could help me get some supplies for the team up there? They’re going hungry.”

“You’ll get your money’s worth of supplies once the trail has been built, isn’t that what they told you?”

Jones nodded, “but what about the food and the mules they promised?”

“Hah! Always slow in coming, but it will come. I can remember many stories of wanting for food, myself and going to sleep wondering if the Chief hadn’t forgotten about his charges. But there’s always ways of getting the word out. Now, tell me about this creature?”

Jones relented and described in detail what he saw and was surprised at his reaction.

“You saw a sasquatch!” He leaned closer and lowered his voice. “Very few people have ever seen one. They are such mysterious creatures, there are some who even question their very existence! I was with Alexander Caulfield Anderson when he saw one not far from Fort Hope. Truly remarkable.”


Sasquatch – near Seton-Portage on old Port Douglas to Lillooet Trail

Early the next morning before dawn broke, the HBC man woke him. The man put a finger to his lips and Jones put his boots on and strode out after him.

“I’ve got your horse loaded down with goods and a pack for yourself.”

Jones hoisted the pack to his back, it must’ve weighed at least a hundred pounds, but the weight was a comfort.

“Thank you sir!”

They shook hands once more and Jones headed out on the trail with Lofty.  In the pre-dawn light, he imagined the sacks were full of gold dust.


“Arrival at Yale by S.S. Umatilla July 21, 1858”  by E.J. Hughes

Note: This painting by E.J. Hughes (1913 – 2007) was commissioned by the B.C. Telephone Company to commemorate the Province’s centennial in 1958 and it appeared on the telephone directories that year. The S.S. Umatilla was one of the first sternwheelers to ply the waters of what became British Columbia and the first on the Fraser River. When she arrived in Yale on July 21st there was much excitement:

“There was a rumour gaining circulation that a little sternwheeler was on her way up the river. Everybody was soon on the lookout and canoes were sent beyond the bend in the river to ascertain the truth of the report. Soon we learned by the shoutings along the banks of the river and the continuous discharge of guns and pistols, that the report was true; whereupon, there was the greatest rejoicing and pleasure manifested by everyone, and powder was burnt amidst the wildest excitement.”